Bad Luck

          Everyone has a string of bad luck in their lives.  Some have it worse than others.  My second ship was a minesweeper out of Charleston, South Carolina.  It was a small ship.  It was a bad ship to be in if you encountered bad weather.

        On the other hand, it was small enough so that you got a chance to be closer to your shipmates.  I was the First Lieutenant, which also meant I was the Minesweeping Officer.  I was in charge of the minesweeping gear and the sailors who manned it.

 I had three very good petty officers in my department.  I had a chief, a first class, and then there was second class Hughes.  All were boatswain’s mates, or bosun, for short. 

Bosun Hughes was a huge man.  For all his size, he had a good nature and the crew called him “Gentle Ben” behind his back.  He knew his job well, and many of our exercises were successful because his men always performed well.  So why was it that he had the string of bad luck I am about to tell you.

We all knew that Bosun Hughes’ wife was recovering from cancer.  That should have been enough for any man.  What happened next was surely not his fault.

The ship had been scheduled to go to the Mediterranean Sea in the fall of 1969.  We were going to be gone for six months.  Many of the crew, including Bosun Hughes, decided to take their families back to their home towns for this six months.  That way they could be close to family.  Hughes took his family back to Arkansas.

        Right before we were to sail, the deployment was cancelled.  I don’t remember the reason why.  That really wasn’t important.  Bosun Hughes got a few days off to fly to Arkansas, and bring his family back to Charleston.  There was a minesweeping exercise scheduled for the Monday after he got back.  The exercise was going to last Monday through Friday.  We would be at sea, off the Carolina coast, for those five days.  Hughes said he would be back in plenty of time.  I really needed him for that exercise.

          Monday morning, as the ship cast off I was aware that Hughes was not aboard ship.  As the ship sailed down the Cooper River with the three other ships of our squadron towards the sea, I talked to some of the crew.  None of the crew had seen or heard from him.  While I did need him for the coming week, I was concerned. Hughes was as reliable as they come.  Something surely must have happened to him.

          That first day and night of minesweeping off the coast were only marred by the darned rain.  I spent hours on deck supervising my men as they streamed gear in the water.  After that I spent another four hours on watch.  When I got off watch I went below to a wet bunk.  Those wooden ships leaked in any kind of rough weather, or rain.  For a short time I forgot about Hughes.

           First thing Tuesday morning a boat came out to our exercise area and brought us our mail.  The boat did this every morning for those five days.  I was sure that Hughes would be on that boat.  He wasn’t on it.  Yes, I was worried.  It just wasn’t like the man to be AWOL like that.

        I had a good crew so we managed without Hughes.  The work on the minesweep deck and long hours conning the ship took my mind off him.  Every morning though, that boat would bring us our mail.  At those times I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to him.

            Friday afternoon finally arrived and the four ships steamed back up the Cooper River to the Navy base.  I got in my car and headed for the house I rented with three other officers.  Once there, I got on my motorcycle and headed across the Cooper River Bridge to Mount Pleasant. I had gotten Hughes’ address and it was on the other side of town.  I had to ask directions a couple of times but I arrived at Hughes’ house about 6:00PM.

          Just as I rode up to the house, Hughes drove into the driveway.  He and the wife, and the three kids looked worn out.  I helped them unload their belongings and we sat down at the kitchen table where he told me what happened.

         The family had been traveling through Tennessee in the station wagon.  They were stopped at a light when the car engine caught on fire.  Hughes got out of the car and opened the hood.  Someone had a fire extinguisher and someone else threw baking soda on the fire.  The damage was limited to the engine compartment.  No one was hurt.

          The car was towed to a garage.  That baking soda had gotten down into the engine and had done a lot of damage.  The cost to get the car going was just about all the money Hughes had.  The garage said they would put a rush on the repairs. Huges didn't have much left after the estimated repairs.  He, the wife and the kids would have to sleep in the car.
       Three nights they slept in the car.  During the day they just sat and waited around.  By the time Hughes realized he had to call the ship, it was Monday morning and the ship had sailed.  There was no way to tell anyone why he missed the ship’s sailing.
           The mechanics, with only the money that Hughes had, finally got the car running.  It was not a very satisfactory job.  Hughes realized that when he had driven about half an hour.  The car overheated and they had to pull over to let it cool down.  For the next four days, they drove half an hour and then stopped for an hour to let the engine cool down.   They slept in the car.

           By the time Hughes and his family arrived home on Friday, they were tired and needed a decent night’s sleep.  They were also out of money.  I knew that Hughes was supposed to have the duty that whole week-end.

           I got on the phone and called the ship’s captain.  I told him what had happened to Bosun Hughes.  I got him to change Hughes’ duty so he didn’t have to go into work until Monday.  I also arranged for him to get paid so he could have some money.
        Today, whenever things don’t go right for me, or my family, I am reminded of Bosun Hughes and his family.  Anything I have to endure and put up with can’t compare with what that man went through.

 Tom Sparkman  March 2, 2003